Caring for a loved one or friend who is injured or incapacitated is among the most challenging work there is. It requires infinite patience, physical and emotional strength, deft negotiation and navigation skills, and a sense of humor — which can be hard to come by after sleepless nights and demanding days. It can be lonely and thankless, and there are times you just want to crawl into bed right next to your loved one to hide out until tomorrow. Everyone who takes care of someone else has experienced this type of mental and physical exhaustion, regardless of how strong they are, how much help they have, or how long they have been doing it. That was the reason we established the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving (RCI) more than 30 years ago — we knew that even when acting out of love, those who are caring for others need help and support.
I have cared for loved ones on and off for all my life. Most Americans, and many of the world’s global citizens, know me simply as Mrs. Jimmy Carter, wife of the former president. They don’t see me as a caregiver, but when I look in the mirror, I see one looking back at me.
I have cared for loved ones on and off for all my life. Most Americans, and many of the world’s global citizens, know me simply as Mrs. Jimmy Carter, wife of the former president. They don’t see me as a caregiver, but when I look in the mirror, I see one looking back at me. It began when I was 12 years old, and my father became ill. He had been strong and active, but he soon became tired and weak. Taking care of him took a toll on our entire family, my mother most of all. In my hometown of Plains, Georgia, with only 600 residents, friends and neighbors jumped in to help. While we appreciated the assistance, putting on a “company face” all the time wore on us as well.
Self-care isn’t self-serving
The experience of looking after my father until his death, and the mix of emotions it provoked, helped shape my understanding of what a caregiver endures. The most competent caregivers, paradoxically, are also the most resistant to claiming that role. Taking care of a spouse or parent or child, they say, is not a job; it is an act of love. Similarly, taking care of yourself is not indulgent or self-serving; rather, it acknowledges that you are essential to the safety and health of someone else.
The responsibilities of caregiving have not changed very much over the years since RCI began or even since I lost my father. Supporting a loved one with serious medical problems — possibly combined with physical and mental disabilities — still places considerable demands on caregivers, who too often feel they must find a way to attend to every need. However, over the past several decades, many changes to society have placed an even greater burden on the primary caregiver. Neighbors don’t tend to be as intimate anymore, and families are often more dispersed. There never seems to be enough time in the day, so some needs must go unmet, and usually the caregiver’s needs are the first to go.
Your oxygen mask comes first
Fortunately, one aspect of modern life is a step in the right direction. With the advent of the wellness movement, many are coming to understand the importance of taking care of oneself. There is finally some acknowledgement that putting on your own oxygen mask before you help others is not selfish; it is the responsible thing to do. We are better at taking care of others when we take care of ourselves.
There is finally some acknowledgement that putting on your own oxygen mask before you help others is not selfish; it is the responsible thing to do.
Good health, of course, always has been a universal goal, but the newfound appetite for wellness has led to trends ranging from meditation and mindfulness, to screen-free weeks (turning off electronics) and cashew milk. More importantly, it has led to widespread interest in self-care. Self-care — any of those actions that you take for yourself — is critical for all of us to maintain our mental and physical health and manage stress. This is especially true for caregivers, who too often overlook the value of their own health and well-being for themselves and their families alike. That is why self-care has always been a core component of all of RCI’s programs. These include Operation Family Caregiver, our signature military program, as well as Dealing with Dementia, RCI REACH, and BRI Care Consultation, which support caregivers of people living with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other chronic conditions, respectively.
Taking care of oneself should not be, and never should have been, controversial. Over my lifetime, our work in government and then at The Carter Center and the Rosalynn Carter Institute has been devoted to helping people, alleviating suffering, achieving equity, and ensuring that people can access what they need to live healthy lives. Why wouldn’t we do the same for ourselves? If I leave any legacy as a public servant, I hope it is this: We all need to be able to look in the mirror and know that we are taking care of ourselves the best way we know how. Whether being the caregiver or the one being cared for, that is what you — that is what all of us — deserve.
Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter has been a caregiver throughout her life, starting at the of age 12. She founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving in 1987 at the campus of her alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University. In 1999, together with President Carter, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of all the good they have contributed to this country and around the world.